Messi’s Argentina have no excuses – but they also shouldn’t be too worried

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Lionel Messi’s eldest son, Thiago, is obsessed with Argentina winning the World Cup. So much so, he has spent the last few months asking his father question after question about the tournament. When are Argentina playing? Who are they up against? What happens if they top the group or, heaven forbid, finish runners-up.

“He’s anxious about it,” Messi confided to Argentine newspaper Ole.

“The truth is he puts me under a lot of pressure.” Winning the Copa America against Brazil in Brazil at the Maracana 18 months ago was supposed to unburden Messi. “That really lessens the tension,” he claimed as Argentina prepared for their opening game of the World Cup against Saudi Arabia in Lusail. A 36-game unbeaten run, the longest in Argentina’s history, did too.

For many people, Lionel Scaloni’s side touched down in Qatar as favourites. Only the former defender didn’t see it that way. “We’re not obliged to win a World Cup,” Scaloni insisted. “We’re wrong if we believe that. We have to respect the other teams. There are no less than eight or 10 national teams that can win the World Cup, of which the majority are European. The big favourites do not usually win.”

Back home the media wondered if this was a cabulero speaking — a superstitious man who didn’t wish to tempt fate. Scaloni, after all, has been here before. He was a member of the Argentina team that went to the 2002 World Cup on a long run without defeat under Marcelo Bielsa. Painfully, and to everyone’s surprise, they were eliminated in the group stage.

Messi looks confused as his side falter (Photo: Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Scaloni is contemplating a dreaded repeat. “It’s a sad day,” he said, in a state of disbelief, after Saudi Arabia came back from behind to complete one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history. Messi trudged off, almost inscrutable. He stared into the distance and then at his boots, sheepish. This is not how he wanted his last World Cup to start, “my last opportunity to accomplish my dream, the dream that we’re all after”. A dream now compromised. “There are no excuses,” Messi grimaced.

Argentina can’t look at the linesman and the goals Messi and Lautaro Martinez had ruled out for offside. They can only look at themselves. “We will now have to prove that we are a real group,” Messi said. A group he favourably compared with the one that reached the World Cup final in Brazil in 2014. “Think positive” was the headline in La Nacion in the build-up to the game. Why wouldn’t Argentina? But the mood around the team had been hit hard at a pre-World Cup training camp in the United Arab Emirates. Nico Gonzalez and Joaquin Correa were forced to withdraw from the squad through injury and Scaloni admitted to having a few “small problems”. The fitness of players like Cristiano Romero, Leandro Paredes and Angel Di Maria, a trio of influential starters, was a concern. Doubt began to set in.

Still, you wouldn’t have noticed as much in the first half against Saudi Arabia. Messi’s early penalty was nerveless, the pace on the ball illustrative of his poise and control. It came so soon in the game that the prospect of him scoring again, and again, and again to match Gabriel Batistuta as Argentina’s all-time top scorer at the World Cup did not seem beyond the realm of possibility. “Lionel has every chance to go past me,” Batigol said on the morning of the game. “And I hope he does.”

But the linesman’s flag (or rather the semi-automated technology) tormented Messi and his strike partner Lautaro. One goal after another was chalked off. Psychologically it must have been a source of frustration. But Messi refused to enter it as mitigation. “So many things are said about the VAR; today it happened that way and that’s it, there are no excuses,” he said.

Ultimately Messi was the one who gave the ball away for Saleh Al-Shehri’s equaliser and Argentina thereafter entered a short but critical state of shock. “It’s hard to assimilate,” Scaloni tried to explain, “because in four minutes we conceded two goals, in what were the only two shots on goal.” The Argentina fans sensed the team needed them. They had been oddly subdued during the game. It was a different vibe from 2014 when they rolled into Rio en masse and sang songs at Brazil’s expense. It was different from the Finalissima in May when they took over Wembley, banging their drums and jumping up and down from kick-off to full-time as the champions of South America blew away Italy, the champions of Europe.

Scaloni reflects on the defeat (Photo: Hector Vivas – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

When Messi opened the scoring, it was as if the fans were too used to it. When Al-Shehri levelled, the Saudi supporters couldn’t believe it and sensed history. Lusail began to feel like Riyadh. This is what home advantage in the Arab world feels like and the Saudis made it count, seizing on Argentina’s uncertainty. A sliced clearance by Leandro Paredes on the edge of his box was celebrated like a goal. A pass Nicolas Otamendi intended to relieve pressure on his own area only intensified it and when Salem Al-Dawsari curled a winner past Emi Martinez in the Argentina goal — Emiliano Martinez, the penalty shootout hero who stopped everything at the 2021 Copa America — it was the zenith of Saudi momentum. The game flipped in five minutes, too soon perhaps for questions to be raised about 44-year-old Scaloni’s game management even if the triple substitution of Romero, Paredes and Di Maria that followed the Saudis’ second goal undoubtedly transmitted a sense of panic.

Still, the outcome should not cloud our judgment. Argentina created enough chances to get a point or more against Saudi Arabia and although a lot has been made of Giovanni Lo Celso’s absence  — the Villarreal midfielder was Argentina’s top assist provider in qualifying and combines well with Messi — a lack of threat wasn’t Argentina’s problem. They won the xG battle 2.23 to 0.14. Let’s not forget Nico Tagliafico missed a point-blank opportunity and Abdulelah Al-Amri’s goal-line clearance made him a hero to his Saudi team-mates. For Messi and Lautaro, it was a game of inches.

Scaloni and his players now have to drown out the noise around them. That’s easier said than done when Poland and Mexico are coming up next. But history tells us Argentina have got off on the wrong foot before. They were the holders when Cameroon and Francois Omam-Biyik upset Diego Maradona and co in the opening game of Italia ’90 at San Siro. It didn’t stop them reaching the final then. Losing to Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to now either. “We have to go on,” Scaloni said. At 35, Messi has no choice if he is to realise his dream and that of his boy, Thiago.

(Photo: ANTONIN THUILLIER/AFP via Getty Images)

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